What Good are the Arts? by John Carey - review by Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson

Aesthetes on Trial

What Good are the Arts?


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 350pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

The first five chapters of this book are based on the Northcliffe Lectures Professor Carey gave at University College London last year. To these he has added two chapters on the importance of English literature. The little book which emerges from this conjunction is contradictory: Carey seems to think that the arts are not much use, with the exception of literature, presumably because he cares deeply about writing but is not emotionally involved with the other arts. On the other hand, the book is well written, incisive, entertaining and thought-provoking, and anyone with the smallest intellectual pretensions will be the better for reading it.

For one thing, Carey neatly summarises and judges all the books, old and new, which have sought to define what constitutes art and gives it merit, and saves us the trouble of reading a tiresome branch of literature. Thus Emmanuel Kant, in the Critique of Judgement, argued that standards of

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